Sundance 2021 Review: All Light, Everywhere

Written by Taylor Baker

94/100

SYNOPSIS: ALL LIGHT, EVERYWHERE explores the personal and philosophical relationships between cameras and weaponry. Once again, as in his acclaimed debut feature RAT FILM, director Theo Anthony roots his inquiry in Baltimore, a city that has long been a testing ground for new policing technologies.

Using the rise of police body cameras as a point of departure, Anthony creates a kaleidoscopic portrait of our shared histories of cameras, weapons, policing and justice. Moving from the 19th century, where the nascent art of photography went hand in hand with colonial projects and the development of automatic weapons, to the headquarters of Axon, a company with a near monopoly on body cameras in the United States, Anthony charts a long view of the relationship between photography and violence. His narrative encompasses abstract explorations of the nature of perception and concrete examples of how the limitations of that perception are weaponized.

All Light, Everywhere presents this authoritarian use of photography without ever losing sight of the medium’s potential to subvert. Anthony’s self-reflexive style makes room for both ambiguity and the sublime, employing verité, performance, and archival research to frame and reframe, underline and undermine. The film stands as a rebuke of the very images it uses to construct its argument. All Light, Everywhere orients the viewer toward a more democratic approach to the image, forsaking the illusion of certainty for a shared journey towards truth.

REVIEW: Broad but narrow, specific but all encompassing, personal but private. Solar parallax, Taser-Axon Body Cameras, optic nerves, eugenics, the operant observer effect, pigeon cameras, the history of photography, Charles Darwin’s cousin, anthropomorphism, constitutional rights — how does one properly begin a review of a film with so may facets? I think with it’s own words. A quote from one of the dozens of lines it has that would define any other picture. But in a film as unique as All Light, Everywhere they simply make up it’s marrow and in a film centered on images it’s astounding that all of it’s narration is worthy of quotation.

“The eye only sees in each thing that for which it looks, and it only looks for that of which it already has an idea.”

Alphonse Bertillon

Theo Anthony’s All Light, Everywhere marks his third project since his 2016 tour de force Rat Film. He edits as well as directs, using Dan Deacon’s evocative score to great effect. In the beginning of the film we are greeted by the smooth voice of narrator Keaver Brenai. Brenai almost reassuringly chimes in as the film builds and elucidates thought provoking realizations in conjunction with troubling facts and historical technologies that expand not only your way of thinking about sight, recording, and images. But the way those pieces of photographic technology have been curated and at points exploited to attack, denigrate, and falsify claims against races, soldiers, and types of individuals.

Theo introduces us to the Axon Technologies Headquarters and shows us, the viewer the process of setting up the choreography with our presenter, walking through the steps to ensure the lighting is correct and the scene is a fluid movement. Presented almost straightforwardly as a bit of corporate marketing. It’s only as the film progresses and these choices and the spoken lines that our guiding executive declares offhandedly that you see the genius of not only the inclusion of these moments with Axon but their pacing. Foreshadowing a critical moment later in the film in which Baltimore citizens and community representatives debate the merit and legality of a new “god’s eye” technology, high above their city recording everyone.

This “god’s eye” technology uses twelve cameras attached to a plane to capture a live feed of whatever is beneath the aircraft. In this case it is the city of Baltimore, which also served as the subject of Baltimore based photographer/director Theo Anthony’s Rat Film. We come to learn that this technology was previously in use for some weeks without the Mayor of Baltimore knowing. This is at once a monumentally disconcerting moment, but also just another brick of grievances in the wall that Anthony has been building. One can feel a clear connection to the black drop effect shown to us earlier in the film in which we learn of an optical phenomenon visible during the transit of Venus that makes it appear to have a liquid-type surface. During this scene a casual line of great implication is shared with us “the act of observation, obscures the observation.”

This off the cuff statement at once beckons one to think of the Hawthorne Effect. Something many budding Psychology Students often learn as the “Operant Observer Effect”. In which one is taught that the very act of observation has a multi-variant effect on that which is being observed. A quick example to consider this idea is to imagine a child at play who knows a mother or father is watching. This also applies to particles in physics observations and has been attributed in many fields of thought in between. Though these claims have on occasion been disputed by some as ‘placebo effect’, knowing that discourse only enriches the film. Knowing that Anthony is playing this bit of insight against us the viewer as well.

In the end All Light, Everywhere is an enriching documentary with great consideration and thought. There’s a slow zoom in on an ugly cartoon-ish face of a dummy that Axon Technologies is testing their weaponry on, cleverly invoking the viewer to reconsider what importance there might be to the faces that our policemen and women target while training with their weapons. There must be a consequence to practicing shooting at specific types of things, mustn’t there? There’s many things that beg deeper inspection and engagement, but after one viewing in the middle of the festival this is as far as I feel I can dive adequately without a rewatch and some more time to research many of the specific points and references within the project.

DIRECTOR THEO ANTHONY’S STATEMENT:

All Light, Everywhere is a film about vision and the power to frame perspective. The project is a natural outgrowth of my first two films, Rat Film and Subject to Review. In Rat Film, I was trying to understand the history of Baltimore through the maps and the power of the mapmaker. In Subject to Review, I tried to understand how power manifested itself through a tool like instant replay. All Light, Everywhere brings together these investigations, focusing on the intersection of cameras, weapons, policing and justice.

I look for subjects that can be latched onto as a vector across time and place, subjects that have contradictory or ambiguous meanings and make strange bedfellows of those who attempt to define them. It’s a process of constant curiosity, exploration, and iteration. I try to move with an understanding that a film doesn’t need to be distilled to a takeaway, that a film and the process of making it can be a proposal, a hypothesis, a gesture to how things can be, rather than how they are.

I believe that concepts are only effective insofar as they connect to the concrete. In my films I want to advocate for a practice that encircles ideas, peoples, and stories into a configuration that not only refracts a greater truth about the nature of their relation, but also lays bare its blueprint, accessible to disassemble and rearrange. I approach documentary with a recognition of the manufactured construct of the medium, and I hope to use that artifice to shed light on arbitrary frameworks masquerading as objectivity. A pursuit of a truth that acknowledges the impossibility of ever arriving, and attempts to make peace with its own failed agenda.

All Light, Everywhere is currently playing the Sundance 2021 Film Festival.

You can follow Theo Anthony’s career at his website.